CHAMPAIGN — The Assembly Hall was rockin' Feb. 4, when country superstar Jason Aldean returned to Champaign-Urbana for a sold-out concert.
More than 15,000 fans packed the Hall for the Saturday evening show, and quite a few decided to have a drink while they were there.
The Assembly Hall sold more than $100,000 worth of beer and wine that night, exceeding total alcohol sales for the previous fiscal year with one concert. The boisterous crowd also kept University of Illinois police busy.
"I can't say Jason Aldean would have played this market if we had not been selling" alcohol, said Assembly Hall Director Kevin Ullestad.
That was the thinking behind the UI's decision in spring 2010 to start selling beer and wine at certain performances. Ullestad said at the time that top country-rock acts like Kenny Chesney and ZZ Top were bypassing Champaign-Urbana because of the Assembly Hall's no-alcohol policy.
"Alcohol sales have definitely helped us, as far as being able to land an attraction," he said.
ZZ Top played the hall in October with Lynyrd Skynyrd, selling more than $36,000 worth of alcohol to a much smaller crowd of 3,861 fans.
The new policy has generated $271,000 of revenue for the Assembly Hall — almost $31,000 that first spring, $96,000 in 2010-11, and about $144,000 since the current fiscal year started July 1.
The top five draws, in terms of alcohol sales, were all country/rock acts.
The figures are gross sales, not net profit, but alcohol accounted for about 10 percent of the Assembly Hall's roughly $1 million in concession sales last year, Ullestad said.
The income hasn't had a huge impact on the arena's bottom line. The decision was driven more by a desire to stay competitive, he said.
"You can go everywhere else in your state and buy a beer at the shows," including Bloomington, Springfield and Peoria, Ullestad said. "It was great for us to be able to adopt this and fall in line with the industry."
The new policy allowed the Assembly Hall to get Aldean, one of country's hottest acts, in October 2010 and again last month for his "My Kinda Party" tour. He first played here in 2007, as the opening act for Rascal Flatts.
"There's many, many buildings for these acts to be playing. We want to make sure we're on that playing field," Ullestad said.
U.S. Cellular Coliseum in Bloomington, which opened in 2006, sells alcohol at every show unless instructed otherwise by the artist (such as Christian rock bands or the Illinois High School Association). It's not affiliated with any university; Illinois State University's Redbird Arena does not serve alcohol.
"It's an atmosphere that a lot of artists want to have when they're playing for their fans, specifically country and rock shows," said Traci Andracke, U.S. Cellular Coliseum's assistant general manager.
The coliseum also receives sponsorship money from beverage companies for exclusive beer and liquor sales rights. The arena has a "Bud Light Lounge" for VIPs.
The coliseum has its share of crowd-control issues, and alcohol "definitely adds another factor," Andracke said. U.S. Cellular brings in extra security and Bloomington police officers for larger shows.
"The benefit definitely outweighs the expense for us," she said.
Alcohol isn't sold at every Assembly Hall show. Each act is evaluated in terms of its audience, which has to be an over-21 crowd for alcohol to even be considered. Ullestad and his staff call other venues to ask about crowd behavior for a particular show.
The Assembly Hall, which is supported by student fees, makes the decision in conjunction with UI police and the office of the vice chancellor for student affairs.
Family shows like Sesame Street or ice shows are alcohol-free, as are performances by bands that draw a college-age or younger crowd.
"We don't even look at it for hip-hop shows; it's too young an audience," Ullestad said. "We're very cautious."
Alcohol tends to be served mostly at country or classic rock shows, such as ZZ Top with its 40-plus audience, or musicals and other shows. But sales are much lower — anywhere from $115 for "A Chorus Line" to $6,800 for Cirque du Soleil in 2011.
It's a different dynamic from country music shows, which feature the huge crowds and raucous audiences of the mega-rock tours from the 1980s, Ullestad said.
Of course, with alcohol and large crowds comes some questionable judgment by fans.
UI police Lt. Roy Acree said police handled 12 medical calls, all alcohol-related, for the Feb. 4 Aldean concert. Three fans were taken to the hospital because "we felt they were to the point where they could no longer care for themselves because of their intoxication level," Acree said.
Seventeen people were ejected from the concert, including a fan who tried to dance on one of the A-section railings to get closer to the band. And one was arrested for trespassing after he "decided he was no longer intoxicated and decided to return," Acree said.
Police collected "field identities" from 26 people who committed transgressions that didn't warrant an arrest: smoking indoors, for instance, or a run-in with another patron. The 17 ejections were likely part of that total, he said.
Even one "FI" is unusual; police typically hand out five during the entire basketball season, he said.
Ullestad pointed out that attendance at the Aldean concert dwarfed any other since the alcohol policy was instituted.
"As soon as I saw it was Jason Aldean coming," on a Saturday night with alcohol sales, Acree said, "I knew we were going to be busy. And sure enough we were."
Ullestad said alcohol has had a "minimal impact" on audience behavior overall. He argued the new policy makes it easier for the staff to manage the crowd.
Fans know they can enjoy a beer during a show, so they don't have to drink beforehand or sneak it in. In the old days, cleaning crews would find bottles under the seats, he said.
Beer and wine are sold in a separate area from other concessions. Room 133 becomes a lounge area, with a bar at one end. Fans pay $6 for a 16-ounce beer or a smaller glass of wine or wine cooler, which Ullestad called reasonable compared with other markets' charging $8 to $9.
Bartenders are trained in TIPS, or Training for Intervention Procedures, and check IDs aggressively for anyone who appears to be 30 or younger, he said. They also issue wristbands and enforce drink limits, and UI police and Assembly Hall security staff monitor sales and crowd behavior, he said.
"We police it heavily," he said.
Ullestad said the long lines for restrooms were a bigger problem at the Aldean concert than drunken behavior. Concourses were crowded, and the Assembly Hall put extra portable toilets outside for fans to use.
"We could have used three times the amount we had," he said.
He said shows with no alcohol sometimes present more crowd-control problems, as with last fall's performance by Drake. Fans had been drinking in the parking lot beforehand and were "rambunctious," he said.
"Audience behavior is based on the show, alcohol or not," Ullestad said.
Still, Acree said a number of patrons at the Aldean concert arrived at the Assembly Hall already intoxicated, and were able to buy more under the new policy.
Overall, he said police have "absolutely no issues" with alcohol being served there. Most concerts are much smaller, from 1,000 to 2,500 fans, and pose few problems, he said.
Aldean's concert would have been a challenge even if no alcohol was served, he said, though "definitely alcohol did not help things."
"I have worked worse concerts before," Acree added, recalling the Phish concerts in years past when fans who followed the group from venue to venue would sell food, alcohol and drugs in the parking lots.
"When we get 15,000 people in there, we're going to be busy," Acree said.
Campus alcohol sales, FY 2011
Assembly Hall: $96,360
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts: $88,000
Memorial Stadium: $151,556
Other Dining Services catering*: $417,539
*Served at events across campus from Illini Union and I Hotel and Conference Center
Source: University of Illinois
This story appeared in print on March 18.